Monday, April 30, 2012

Property, Preservation, Parking = Community, Constituency, Communication

Where some alliterative arithmetic may help to illustrate the comparative connections between two building brouhahas.

Those who follow news in my local area on Sewickley Patch and other media outlets are undoubtedly aware of two disputes involving the planned re-purposing of property in two communities:
  • The purchase of a historic Sewickley home by a local church, which had plans to tear it down and build a youth center that opponents believe will sully the perceived architectural and historical integrity of the neighborhood.                                             
  • The purchase of residential property in Leetsdale by the local school district, with the apparent intent of acquiring additional adjacent residences, demolish them, and pave paradise and put up a parking lot, with traffic routing changes for the nearby high school. Residents of the neighborhood, bolstered by their municipal officials, are questioning the district's actions, justifications, and planning processes.
There are numerous area stakeholders who are taking a stand regarding these projects. Some are community leaders in business and other arenas, who live in or near the neighborhoods involved. Others are elected officials, whose properties are in the proverbial cross hairs.

One of these officials, District Justice Bob Ford, asserted during a recent Leetsdale Council meeting that "they" (unspecified) were trying to connect these disputes together, when they were in fact radically different.

From a legal standpoint, he's right - one involves a private property transaction, and the other the acquisition of property by a governmental entity, possibly by force if some of the rhetoric is to be believed.

However, there are other factors that seem to permeate these two disputes, providing insight not only into the likely root cause, but also the means by which the issues have been affected by cooperation, media coverage, and community activism.

Pink House Polemic 

Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - Rebecca Droke
When the Presbyterian Church of Sewickley purchased the nearby property from the descendants of Elliott and Carolyn Coyle earlier this year, is it possible that they could not have foreseen the outrage that their obtaining a demolition permit from Sewickley Borough could have brought toward their plans and their organization?

Were they fully aware of the potential for confrontation with neighbors and other property owners, upset with what they may see as an assault on the integrity of "The Village"?

Provided that the required funding can be secured, it sounds as if the Pink House will get its reprieve. Setting aside who was right or wrong, one thing is certain - those forces in the neighborhood did not like the apparent lack of communication, and leveraged knowledge and a few other resources to influence the project's current status. 

One big factor was the amount of media attention paid to the controversy - and not just local. In late March, the Post-Gazette published several stories by Homes Editor Kevin Kirkland - you can read them here, here, and here. The last is basically a short op-ed on how Mr. Kirkland thinks the house and grounds should be reconfigured for church uses. 

That's an extraordinary amount of column inches, not counting any photos. It made me wonder why. 

I spent some time growing up in this neighborhood, albeit a couple of blocks down Grant Street. When walking into the Village, I always went behind the church to access Duquesne Way (it's now fenced off), and walked down the alley, past the rear of the Coyle house, to Walnut Street.

On Thorn Street, behind the Pink House on the other side of the alley, the Hamill kids were growing up, too. One of them, Sean, is now one of the better reporters at the Post-Gazette.

In an excellent Saturday Diary post from last year, Mr. Hamill credits his neighbors, award-winning photographers Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow, for planting the idea that led to his choice of journalism as a career. That's the same Melissa Farlow who is one of the primary motivators behind Save the Pink House, and was featured in one of the Kirkland pieces.

Another question is whether or not the neighborhood was even entitled to a voice. The church is a landmark in and of itself, as well as a fixture of the neighborhood where it sits. Many neighbors are not as enthusiastic about the church's vibrant existence - they bemoan the lines of cars parked on Beaver Street during Sunday services, especially when driveways are blocked. Ironically, the project as planned would help to address some of that.

Still, I wonder if an attempt to proactively communicate with the neighbors  - whether entitled to know, be involved, or otherwise spectate - would have resulted in a more measured, reasonable beginning to this disagreement, and prevented some of the spectacle that transpired. 

At least one local resident finds fault with the Pink House 'movement' as perhaps anti-American. In a passionate letter to Sewickley Patch, Richard Zucckero of Glen Osborne accuses the  concerned citizens of looking at the Pink House "as if its sole purpose is to pose background to the broad-stroked painting of their own presence and property". He adds that this raises the spectre of a "co-op" mentality, something akin to the fascism practiced by many condominium associations and subdivision HOA's through restrictive covenants.

Wait a minute, though - there are zoning ordinances and other devices of government already shaping the use of property. In one of the Kevin Kirkland stories, it was reported that the efforts of St. Stephen's Church to demolish what is now Henning House were rebuffed by a borough architectural review committee - if that house was saved, why wouldn't the same process apply to the Coyle property? 

Henning House, part of the campus of St. Stephen's Church

Sewickley Borough manager Kevin Flannery was kind enough to spend a few minutes to explain that the Pink House does not fall within the boundaries of the three Historic Districts established by ordinance in the 1980's. St. Stephen's, and the cavernous old duplex next door that is now an impressive example of restorative architecture, are. 

Those commenting on the Patch letter also alluded to so many other things going on in the world, and the amount of comparative energy being expended on such a seemingly trivial cause. There's some irony here, as Ms. Farlow has likely seen much of the world as a photographer for National Geographic. I can sympathize a little, but can also see something positive coming from this.

Frank Lloyd Wright, while being a true creative genius, was also a narcissist, womanizer and spendthrift. He is rumored to have said of his own life, "So long as we had the luxuries, the necessities would pretty much take care of themselves". 

Perhaps in that context we can see the Pink House as a metaphor for the gradual decay of the middle class, civility, and compassion in this country. If this solid old structure can somehow be salvaged, and then populated with those intent on carrying out some of the true mission of Christ - ministering to the poor, caring for youth and those struggling to care for themselves - then maybe there is hope for the rest of Sewickley, and our fragile society as well.

Nah - we're doomed. Let's take the Lexus down to Azul for one last margarita before it's all over.

They'll probably park in front of the house again.

Politics, Purpose, and Planning

In contrast, the burgeoning dispute in Leetsdale between local residents and the Quaker Valley School District involves other factors on top of just property use. 

Leetsdale Borough officials, led by Council President Joe McGurk (whose property is also in the area of interest), have publicly questioned the school district's assertions that they have communicated with the borough over the years regarding traffic and parking issues at the high school. The district has countered that they have had "informal" discussions with the borough, although it's unclear exactly who with. 

Other borough officials and residents have openly questioned the district's stated emphasis on student safety, while criticizing a rendering of the proposed traffic solution as not in keeping with the varying accounts of safety solutions discussed with various officials over the years. 

Credit: Sewickley Herald - Kristina Serafini
The Sewickley Herald has focused the bulk of their coverage on the student safety issue, specifically the practice of stopping in front of the school entrance to drop off or pick up students, which is prohibited. Herald reporter Bobby Cherry documented vehicles stopping and dropping off students during both school hours and evening events, with no apparent presence by either police or school district officials. 

Missing from the two Herald stories was any comment from Leetsdale Police about the issue. When contacted in mid-April, Chief James Santucci stated that his department has been conducting targeted enforcement at the high school at least 2 days per week, and had issued about 40 citations for impeding the flow of traffic. 

Display at Leetsdale Borough Hall
on Primary Election Day, April 24.
Per Chief Santucci, this type of enforcement typically takes two officers to conduct safely. Chief Santucci added that his officers were "getting carpal tunnel" from writing parking tickets for those areas adjacent to the high school where parking is prohibited.

The parking issues around the high school have also been a long-standing issue, especially during after-hours events. Chief Santucci stated that the owners of Quaker Village Shopping Center, adjacent to the high school, have given him assurances that students and event attendees may park in their lot, so long as they use the spaces furthest from the stores. He also noted that available spaces at the high school athletic complex often go unused in favor of street parking (illegal and otherwise), because "no one wants to walk up 'cardiac hill'".

Draft plan of  proposed QVHS traffic control measures.
Quaker Village Shopping Center is in the upper left .
Credit: QVSD / Sewickley Patch
This brought up several questions regarding parking, and the proposed traffic plan, that I posed to Martha Smith, QV's Communications Director. She relayed the following answers from Superintendent Dr. Joseph Clapper:
Q: Has the district had any official communication with the owners and/or managers of Quaker Village Shopping Center regarding this project? If so, what have the results been? Does the district have any other agreements with the Center ownership or management?
A: The District has had no communication with the property owners at the Quaker Village Shopping Center.  I am not aware of any agreements that the District has with the owners of the Quaker Village Shopping Center.  
Q:  I have heard reservations..regarding the proposed parking and traffic solution, and its lack of at least egress into the rear of the shopping center. This would appear to be of paramount concern in an evacuation or other emergency scenario. Would the district consider approaching the shopping center to establish the kind of relationship necessary to provide for a traffic management plan that addresses these concerns?
A: The district might have some interest in this discussion especially because it relates to safety.  However, obviously, it is premature to conduct such a discussion.  The Board is giving serious consideration to conducting another traffic engineering study.  I'm sure the topic of emergency evacuation will be a part of this study including recommendations.

I greatly appreciate the district's willingness to respond to these queries, but I'm not sure about how establishing any form of dialogue with a long-standing, major commercial neighbor to their property could be considered "premature".

As of last week, the District is still considering another traffic engineering study. That's a good idea - the first one seems to betray some thinking for which I cannot think of better terms than "isolationist" and "counter-intuitive". I'm trying to imagine what it would be like to try and get my car out of that lower parking lot in an emergency, with only one way in and out. 


1. These two conflicts seem to have at their root a fundamental lack of communication caused by two different sets of circumstances. In the case of the Pink House, the neighborhood wasn't considered a vital stakeholder in the process because there wasn't any legal justification for it. There appear to be strong opinions on both sides of that argument. 

As a consequence, Sewickley Borough may be encouraged to evaluate those areas of the borough that are designated for historic review. It's been 25 years since the last historic district was codified as part of their ordinance, and it's hard to fathom how an area that showcases examples such as the Pink House could be left out.

2. In the case of Leetsdale, the school district appeared to engage in some insular thinking here. Judging from the reactions of several borough officials (some with expertise in these areas), the draft plan for "improving" traffic flow, combined with a seemingly inexplicable lack of communication with the Shopping Center, made the entire initial exercise seem ham-handed.

District administration and the school board also appeared to fail by not taking into account some political factors - two elected officials, including the President of Council, having their properties potentially targeted without an attempt at communicating proactively with them, and other property owners,  in advance.

It also didn't help when the President of the School Board mentioned the "nuclear option" of eminent domain so early in the debate - it seemed to betray some thinking on his part that they're the big, bad school district, and they'll "negotiate" from a position of strength.  Perhaps Quaker Valley could do itself and its constituents a favor by refocusing themselves on the fact that they are, first and foremost, public servants.

3. In the process of reading, listening, and asking questions, I've found that the reaction of Leetsdale Borough appears to be justified, but that they may have also contributed to their own indignation. There seemed to be a lack of continuity in determining what kind of information the borough had, when they had it, and who was responsible for conveying it to the remainder of borough government, as well as citizens, for substantive action and follow-up.

This bolsters my opinion, expressed last year, that the lack of a 'point person' to represent the borough on a daily basis, and coordinate the relationships between governmental entities and other stakeholders, hampers the borough's ability to operate credibly and efficiently.

4. The media seemed to play a decisive role in communicating facts and information, and may have even become part of the story a bit. From the possible leveraging of long-term relationships, to "investigations" of when things are enforced and when they're not, the reporting was nonetheless relevant and enjoyable. The online presentations and user commentary cemented the value of both hyperlocal news-gathering and regional specialty reporting.

5. At the end of it all, it seems that reasoned (if at times impassioned) discourse has triumphed in creating a pathway for which the two sides in each of these disputes can navigate their differences, and perhaps arrive at a solution that is in the best possible interest of everyone concerned.

This is perhaps an example of how America functions best - informed citizens engaged in civil debate to air and resolve differences, with respect as a solid foundational value, and a free press (including the Internet) to make sure that the facts are available to everyone.

Have a great week ahead.

1 comment:

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